French Presidential Race: Battle of Putin's friends: how new France may look
Vitaly Portnikov Vitaly Portnikov Ukrainian journalist

16:30 Nov. 22, 2016

Battle of Putin's friends: how new France may look

Russian then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon at the Hotel de Matignon on June 21, 2011 in Paris, France (Getty Images)

Devastating blow to the Normandy format is brewing in France. The Euro-Atlantic political earthquake is just starting

Until a few weeks, even a few days ago, everything was clear. Mayor of Bordeaux Alain Juppe and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy were set to become winners of the primaries, held before the presidential election in France by the local centre-right Republican Party.

The politicians should have made it into the run-off, with Juppe taking a confident lead over Sarkozy.

General opinion polls said that Juppe was quite able to win the presidential elections against the National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

All that allowed pollsters to make the most optimistic forecasts: France will avoid populist danger, and instead of the unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande, the Elysee Palace will be headed by a respected liberal leader who is very negative about the foreign policy of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Putin's friends - Sarkozy and Le Pen - will be left behind.

But a few days before the primaries, the situation began to change rapidly, and sociologists found out that all three candidates- not only Juppé and Sarkozy, but also former Prime Minister of France Francois Fillon – have almost equal chances to win.

But the result was very much the same as it was in the US presidential election. Fillon, who until recently was considered to be an outsider, triumphed over Juppé and Sarkozy.

Former French President has already announced the end of his political career. Juppe declared readiness to fight with Francois Fillon in the second round of primaries this week. But his chances are slim. Fillon and Juppe are just 16 percent apart, and Sarkozy, who scored more than 20 percent, has already said he will vote for Fillon.

Read also A pro-Kremlin candidate in the Elysee Palace anyway?

The success of the former prime minister of France comes as no surprise. Fillon has run an effective campaign. Just before the election, he published a book under the impressive title "Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism" - no need to explain how important it is now for the French people. But Fillon's success is not just that. Sarkozy and Juppe were really very much divided in the opinion, because they had different campaign tactics.

Sarkozy attempted on the electorate of the National Front, expecting to fight Marine Le Pen on her own battlefield. But after the Republicans lost the local elections in a number of departments, many party members were disappointed with this approach.

Juppe wanted to look like a politician who will unite the country, he made an attempt on the Socialist electorate, already disillusioned with Hollande. And this outspoken liberalism has also caused frustration among many right-wing voters. Fillon was able to formulate a centrist position, which seemed substantial to the participants of the primaries.

All these things are France's domestic context. But there are also foreign policy views of the former prime minister - a longtime friend of Vladimir Putin, a member of the Valdai Club, and an opponent of Russian sanctions.

Now let's see what can happen in the French presidential election, if Fillon wins primaries. The politician has every chance to face the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, in the second round. He also has a chance to win in the second round, because the Socialist electorate will vote for the Republican candidate – just as it was when the President Jacques Chirac and the father of Marine Le Pen faced each other in the run-off in 2002.

Read also Master of puppets: how Russia undermines Europe with its allies

But this second round will be a battle of Vladimir Putin's friends. Fillon and Le Pen's foreign policy approaches are different when it comes to European and Euro-Atlantic solidarity - but they are virtually indistinguishable when it comes to Russia.

Meanwhile, it is the president of France who is a party to the Normandy format, alongside the presidents of Ukraine and Russia, and the German Chancellor. It is he who represents the common position of the West. And the settlement of the conflict in the east of Ukraine is associated with him.

And what will happen if the French president's position does not greatly differ from the position of the President of Russia? Isn't it what Vladimir Putin has been waiting for? He has been waiting for Le Pen, for Sarkozy, but Fillon turned up. What's the difference? And who will be able to influence Paris if the French president wants to lift sanctions against Russia? Paris is not Budapest, not Athens.

As a consolation prize, I can note that a lot of water can flow under the bridge before the presidential elections in France. Now the star of the former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron is rising in the political sky. This young politician may seem to many voters far more attractive - and, most importantly, a new figure - compared with Fillon or Le Pen. But I would not harbor much hope. It should be understood that the European - or rather Euro-Atlantic - political earthquake is just starting to happen.

Vitaly Portnikov is a Ukrainian journalist and political expert. This article originally appeared in Russian in liga.net

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